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Norman Solomon: Farm workers bill of rights is vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown; Nurses strike against cuts and for health care for all

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul in Washington. The Occupy Wall Street is beginning to receive national attention. Right across the country, people are in motion, and one of the places there seems to be some of the most action is the state of California. Everyone from nurses to postal workers to farmers have been hitting the streets or on strike. Now joining us to talk about what’s going on in California is Norman Solomon. Norman’s a progressive Democrat. He’s running for the US Congress in California’s new coastal district, extending from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. Norman was one of the founders of the Institute for Public Accuracy. He’s been associated with FAIR for a long time. And he’s also the national cochair of Healthcare Not Warfare campaign. Thanks for joining us, Norman.


JAY: So give us a picture, overview of what’s going on in California now.

SOLOMON: Well, you know, I think that the continued really high unemployment in California, up into double digits, 12 and beyond officially, which understates the extent of the unemployment problem, has really been a great source of distress, as in so many places in the country. I think the fact that it’s been so protracted and high in California has really stirred up just so much discontent. And, of course, political activism is the appropriate response when people see that corporations are posting record profits while workers are losing their jobs, takebacks of basic benefits that have been hard won over a period of years and decades, and also unions that are under assault in California. So the anger is, I think, often not being used to the extent it needs to be. But there is a lot of good organizing and a lot of good union activity.

JAY: Let’s start with nurses. They were on strike for a day. Nurses have also nationally been organizing in terms of some issues, in fact, the Wall Street transaction tax. Tell us a bit about that, the nurses’ story.

SOLOMON: Well, the state of California is blessed with the California Nurses Association, which is very politically astute and active in the macro. It was responsible, to a large degree, to challenging someone that they dubbed “Queen Meg”–Meg Whitman–and helped to really bring down her campaign for governor in the state last year. And the California Nurses Association has really been challenging some of the bulwarks of the medical-industrial complex, you might say, conceptually very important in continuing to fight for single-payer, guaranteed health care for all. You know, full disclosure: I’m cochair of the Healthcare Not Warfare campaign with Donna Smith of the California Nurses Association, who many people will remember from Michael Moore’s film SiCKO, and also Congressman John Conyers. So CNA, as a union, has for a long time been very clear about the need to get beyond these sort of Band-Aid approaches to a, basically, wounded and very ill health care system/nonsystem that provides record profits, often, for hospital, pharmaceutical, and insurance industries. Clear that we need guaranteed health care for all, also known as single-payer–an enhanced Medicare, I should say. There’s a debate now on is the Medicare age the right age for eligibility, some even Democrats saying, oh, it should be raised a couple of years, up to 67. I am for changing the eligibility of Medicare down to zero. Everybody should have it. But CNA not only has been fighting for single-payer health care, but also on the job, defending, really, nurses and all patients. And so a couple weeks ago I was really thrilled to be on the picket line with nurses as part of a one-day regional state stoppage.

JAY: Yeah. What was that about? Why were they on strike for a day?

SOLOMON: Really, a long litany of very important reasons, ranging from cutbacks in health care for the nurses themselves to ways in which nurses are being prevented from taking care of their patients. And so the net effect is that there’s all sorts of takebacks from the managements of Kaiser and the facility that I was involved in picketing, the Novato Community Hospital, owned by this huge conglomerate called Sutter Health corporation. The nurses were out there. And as the strike as a whole was saying, look, when you take away the health-care benefits of nurses, when you take away their autonomy on the job to determine what’s good for the patient, and instead you bring in management not only to cut back on the benefits for the nurses, but also to tell the nurses to get out of the way so that the bean counters can reduce the level of care and quality of care for the patients, then you see, I think, the way in which union rights and patient rights are really one and the same. And a lot of times, management and the media try to separate those out and say, well, it’s a matter of the nurses are trying to get x or the well-being of the patients. Ultimately, I think it’s profoundly true in this case, but also a big metaphor, that the well-being of the public and the well-being of working people, it’s really one and the same.

JAY: So the nurses were in action, but also postal workers. What was going on there?

SOLOMON: Yes. I was really thrilled to be part of a rally in Santa Rosa, California, part of a nationwide protest by and for postal unions against, basically, an austerity-vicious drive on Capitol Hill to eviscerate important parts of the Postal Service. When you think about it, the USPS, the Postal Service, is one of the few really public service public entities that are not about being run for profit. There’s mail delivery. You can go to your post office. It’s not about pushing commercial products. It’s not about trying to jack up the prices. And yet what we’re seeing now is, in Washington, this tremendous assault on the Postal Service–efforts to eliminate Saturday delivery, so it would be just five days a week; efforts to close thousands of post offices; efforts to lay off perhaps 100,000 postal workers. And it’s that vicious cycle that Amtrak, for instance, has undergone, where the right wing, and some corporate Democrats as well, try to damage the system, and then, after damaging the system, saying, look how bad the system is functioning, so we need to damage it some more.

JAY: Well, that’s the–the argument is: the reason this is happening to the Post Office is ’cause it’s just not competitive with the private carriers.

SOLOMON: Yeah, and that’s a total manipulation of the figures. One of the ways in which the–putting the daggers into the Post Office has been pulled off is that the pension health costs have been calculated ahead of time into the liabilities of the Postal Service now. So, actually, the Postal Service is quite solvent, except with an extraordinary bookkeeping requirement from the Congress, signed into law: the Post Office has to prepay billions and billions of dollars of health care pension liabilities, going up decades and decades ahead. If you get rid of that, we have a totally solvent system. And yet this is a measure that has been implemented and now is being used by, frankly, some really terrible media coverage to portray the storyline as, hey, you know, there’s the internet, and the Post Office can’t compete anymore. The Post Office is doing just fine if the politicians in Washington will stop manipulating the numbers and let the postal workers do their work, which they do very well.

JAY: Well, this isn’t getting out into the media. I mean, is there also sort of ineffectual communications on behalf of the Postal Workers Union?

SOLOMON: [snip] certainly blockaded by the corporate mentality and the storyline that has been largely propagated by the corporately owned and operated and advertised media–as well as, it has to be said, National Public Radio–which has really failed to bring in the basic facts, that only with this creative, manipulative bookkeeping to put the burden now on the books, cook the books in the present day for liabilities stretching ahead for so many decades in terms of prepayment of health care for pensions, it’s really distorting the picture of the financial health of the Postal Service. And this is a fundamental chapter in the assault on the New Deal that’s been going on for many decades. So when you stop and think about the fact that postal workers are the largest unionized workforce in this country today, you see how the anti-union drive–and it’s fed by UPS and FedEx, both huge corporations licking their chops–this is the agenda, and we’ve got to defend the postal workers. And as a candidate for Congress north of the Golden Gate Bridge, I was thrilled to be part of one of the rallies inside our congressional district, to say, don’t touch the USPS, it’s fine the way it is, stop cooking the books, stop threatening postal workers. And this is really a righteous fight going on around the country.

JAY: Right. Now, the other thing that is going on in California is farmworkers as well. There was a–if I understand it correctly, a bill of rights that was supposed to be–that in fact, I guess, was passed. And then what happened? Jerry Brown vetoed it. Is that–do I understand that?

SOLOMON: After many, many years of organizing, of election work, of protests, the United Farm Workers and their allies were able to get passage in the California legislature [of] a bill to bring some justice to the fields. And to digress for a moment, our campaign for Congress in the district–we did a Solomon for Congress campaign rally a few weeks ago in Petaluma, California. And along with myself, Sean Penn was a speaker there, and Casimiro Alvarez, the northern California political director for the United Farm Workers. And something I said there I want to say now, which is that I love a glass of wine as much as anybody else, but there’s no glass of wine that is delicious enough to wash away the bitterness of the taste of injustice in the field. We have so many farmworkers who are suffering out in the fields. They have a right to form a union. And this legislation, which went to the governor’s desk in California, was essentially giving farmworkers at long last the rights that they should always have, which is to be able to form a union without being subjected to all sorts of intimidation processes by the growers and big agribusiness.

JAY: So what is this? Jerry Brown was supposed to be a sort of left-of-center Democratic Party representative, and he vetoes the farmer rights bill.

SOLOMON: Yeah. And it was all the more ironic and terrible because when Jerry Brown was governor a few decades ago, he was seen as and was really an ally of farmworkers. But in vetoing this new measure here in the late summer of 2011, he just prattled off some nonsense about he didn’t think it was balanced and so forth. Frankly, he was deferring to agribusiness. And like many, many people in the state and around the country, I was outraged and remain outraged that Governor Brown in California would veto this farmworker rights bill. So I joined with many, many thousands of farm workers and others marching on the State Capitol in Sacramento. It was very inspiring.

JAY: Well, how is this–or has it split the Democratic Party in California? ‘Cause if the legislation got passed through the state legislature, then a majority of state Democrats supported it. What is their attitude now to their governor?

SOLOMON: Well, that’s sort of a parable for a lot of the dynamics that unfortunately happen in Sacramento and Washington, DC. This farmworker rights bill passed because of overwhelming support by Democrats in the Legislature. And once the Democratic governor vetoed it, you had, certainly, some expressions of misgivings and unhappiness, but not really full-throated protest, from a lot of those elected officials in the Legislature. I think that it’s unfortunately a dynamic that is all too prevalent and has to change. And as a progressive Democrat, I’m glad to say that I’ve been up and down the district denouncing the veto and saying that we’ve got to effectuate–if that’s one way to put it, I suppose–our solidarity with farmworkers, and working people generally, beyond just usual check-the-box, I voted correctly, and that’s the end of it. We have to push back when elected officials of any party are part of this anti-union drive.

JAY: Well, is there any sign that from the state legislature they’re going to fight Brown on this?

SOLOMON: Well, there’s an effort now, the last I saw, to bifurcate the bill, take part of the element, push it through, and get it signed. It’s a protracted process. On the plus side, I think there’s a lot more solidarity among unions than there has been. We have Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO nationally, speaking in increasingly feisty and, I think, appropriate terms about pushing back against Democrats, fighting for working people, for unions, and looking out for our interests. And also you have, symbolically, as we saw in Sacramento on the steps of the Capitol, not only from UFW and many other unions, it was inclusive of the Teamsters speaking out for the farmworkers. And for those who know their labor history, in the 1960s and early ’70s, the Teamsters were at direct odds with the farmworkers. The Teamsters were seen as arms of the growers. There was violence on the picket line, with Teamsters and farmworkers clashing. And since the farmworkers were dedicated to nonviolence, often the Teamsters were part of violence against the farmworkers. How times have changed, because there was a beautiful expression of labor solidarity on the Capitol steps in Sacramento, where spokespeople for the Teamsters were very clear in their full-blown support for the farmworkers. And I take that as a very positive sign about how labor solidarity has grown, even while the labor unions are in very tough straits now. So it’s all to say that we’ve got to work together more emphatically and push back more strongly against elected officials who are basically trying to shunt aside the power of labor unions.

JAY: Well, we’ll see that when we see it, because certainly at the national level, the unions have been pushing back minimally with the Obama administration.

SOLOMON: Well, you know, you see Trumka saying, I think, some very encouraging things. And the dilemma is that meanwhile, of course, you have a reprehensible Republican Party. We know that the Republicans on Capitol Hill and all those lined up to run for president are unequivocally hostile to working people in unions. And then you have this mixed picture from Democrats. So it goes to the point, I think, that we need to organize effectively on the streets as well as inside the Democratic Party to move in a progressive direction.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Norman.

SOLOMON: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Norman Solomon is the co-founder of, and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.